The end of ground effect, the overblown turbo era, qualifying engines meant to last just one lap and controversy – F1 in the 1980s had it all. It was the era when McLaren and Williams stamped their mark as the ones to watch for the next few decades and Lotus began its difficult decline. These are our favourite cars from this era of excess, and to highlight how poor a decade it was for the team from Maranello, there isn’t a single Ferrari to be found.
The eight best F1 cars of the 1980s
The middle-to-late years of the ground effect era in F1 did seem to be a time when almost anyone on the grid (anyone with a proper car that is) could win an F1 race. So dominant cars are few and far between. While Lotus and Colin Chapman had begun the underbody revolution in the late-’70s, it was Williams and Patrick Head who would really harness it in the early years of the new decade. The weapon of choice was the FW07 which, in the hands of Alan Jones and Clay Regazzoni, won three F1 titles (two Constructors’ and one Drivers’).
The FW07 made its debut mid-way through the 1979 season and immediately retired five times in three races. But so good was the concept that, once the reliability issues were sorted, it won five of the remaining eight races for second on the Constructors’ standings.
Come 1980 it was surely the favourite. And it lived up to that tag, winning six races and taking both titles in FW07 and later 07B guise. So good was it that a total two other teams bought older spec FW07s to race that year.
While 1981 wasn’t as much of a success, with four wins and no Drivers’ crown, the 07C was still fast enough to take the Constructors’ for a second time. It raced into the frankly bonkers 1982 season before being replaced by the FW08 – with which Keke Rosberg won the title.
Love F1 in the ‘80s? Read our story: The history of F1: the 1980s
Everything that can be said about the MP4/4 has pretty much already been said. You’ll find it atop our list of the best F1 cars of all time here, you’ll find an interview with one of its finest mechanics here and you can watch it in action at the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard in the hands of Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato here.
It was, simply put, the most dominant F1 car of all time. If you think Mercedes have dominated some seasons recently, they really haven’t managed to get close to just how ahead of the field the McLaren MP4/4 was.
While we can’t really say any more about the car (mighty Honda V10, design by Steve Nichols and Gordon Murray, driven by Senna and Prost, won 15 of 16 races in the 1988 season), no list of the best cars of this decade could possibly be complete without a mention of the McLaren MP4/4.
It’s quite hard to pick between the Lotus 98T and 99T as to which should be in this list. While the 99T was a development of the 98T and had possibly the better engine – powered as it was by the dominant 1.5-litre Honda V6 – scored more points overall and more fastest laps, they both scored the same amount of wins through their relative seasons.
We’ve swung toward the 98T because not only did it put Ayrton Senna in with a reasonable chance of winning a first championship at the final round in Adelaide, but the legendary Brazilian stuck the 98T on pole in exactly half the races that took place in the 1986 season.
The 98T was also the final car from Lotus to be clad in John Player Special black and gold, a livery Lotus had worn since the 72. Powered by the final turbocharged F1 engine Renault would produce until 2014, the 98T was blessed with over 1,000PS when in qualifying trim, while in the race the engine would be pared back for reliability reasons to “only” 900PS. Although it wasn’t a revolution the 98T still featured some classic Lotus design invention, featuring one of the first versions of barge boards, which have become so important to aerodynamics, and a microcomputer to monitor fuel consumption, useful in an era when running out of juice was relatively common.
Senna would win two races and compete for the title, while team-mate Johnny Dumfries, in his only season in F1, was tasked with testing out a tricky six-speed gearbox from Hewland and spent most of the season retiring the car. The following year the 99T would take Lotus’s final F1 victory.
Love F1? Read: The history of F1: the 1990s
How do you make the McLaren MP4/4 even better? Well in competitive terms the answer is, you don’t. But in the sheer visual beauty stakes, the follow-up MP4/5 was an improvement. Designed again by Steve Nichols, Gordon Murray and Neil Oatley, the MP4/5 took many of the aerodynamic developments from its predecessor, added an air intake to the roll-hoop and clothed them around a naturally-aspirated 3.5-litre Honda V10 – turbocharged engines were banned after 1988. Once again Prost and Senna battled for the title in a pretty-much two-horse race, with Senna winning more races, but Prost’s consistency clinching him the title after a controversial Japanese Grand Prix – where both cars ends up locked together at Suzuka’s final chicane.
The MP4/5 would also race on into 1990, clinching another pair of titles and retiring with a record of 16 wins in 32 races. More impressively, out of those 32 races it only didn’t start on pole five times. Senna clinched the vast majority of those, including taking 13 in 1989 alone. As a result of the looks and longevity, there is even an argument that the MP4/5 is the greater car than the mighty MP4/4.
Has there ever been a more purposeful looking F1 car than the Brabham BT52? The end of ground effect rules had meant that Gordon Murray and Brabham had to throw away the fully finished BT51 they had designed to race in the 1983 season. Starting completely from scratch the BT52 was designed and finished ready to race in just six weeks, with a focus on stripping away everything that had been on the old car for ground effect reasons. That meant the long sidepods were removed, and a giant rear wing was added. This gave the BT52 a dart like appearance almost unlike any car seen before or since. With the turbo era getting underway, and cars now generating upwards of 1,500hp in qualifying, Murray also gambled on moving pretty much all the weight to the back of the car, to improve traction.
And it worked, the BT52 won four races in 1983, allowing Nelson Piquet to take his second World Championship and handing Brabham third in the Constructors’ standings. Not only was the BT52 one of the most striking F1 cars of all time to look at, and the last championship winning car for Brabham, but its turbocharged BMW M12 engine was an absolute masterpiece. Just imagine telling someone, lamenting the current loss of big V12s in favour of small V6s, that Piquet’s BT52 had 1,500PS from a four-cylinder engine measuring just 1.5-litres...
Two World Constructors’ Championship, one Drivers’ Championship, 18 wins, 16 poles and 17 fastest laps. That was the record of the Williams FW11 when it was retired after two seasons at the top of the F1 championship at the end of 1987. That it hadn’t swept all four titles in those two years was more down to the continuing bad luck of home hero Nigel Mansell than anything else.
Powered by Honda’s 1.5-litre, turbocharged V6 engine – perhaps one of the greatest engines in the history of motorsport – that would eventually power the MP4/4, the 1986 Drivers’ championship only slipped through Mansell, Piquet and Williams’s fingers at the final round, when Mansell’s rear left tyre exploded in dramatic fashion (as you can read about in our piece on motorsport heartbreak here). Mansell was out and Williams panicked and called Piquet in. Prost won the race and the championship and Piquet was left fuming.
The car was updated for 1987 and then even further part way through the year with the first active suspension system Williams would use (a system that would eventually be perfected on the FW14B and FW15). Piquet pretty much strolled to the title, his only real challenger being his team-mate, and Williams dominated the Constructors’ standings. While it would end in a double blow for Williams, as both Piquet and Honda walked away, the two years with the FW11 showed that Williams were a team ready to lead the way in engineering terms, while Lotus – which Honda had switched to – faded.
There was a period before he re-joined McLaren when you wondered what Alain Prost had to do to win a championship. He was consistent and had super-fast machinery from Renault, but reliability constantly let him down.
Such is the story of the Renault RE40. It was the first Renault F1 car to be built entirely from carbon-fibre, and featured the final version of the of Renault’s mighty EF1 1.5-litre turbocharged V6 engine, which had been steadily developed since it was introduced in 1977. With a trick chassis, one of the best engines on the grid and Prost at the wheel the RE40 should have walked to the 1983 title, and at times it looked like it would. Prost won four races, more than any other driver, and no other team won more races than Renault. But, like so many previous years, the Achilles heel was reliability. Prost led the championship comfortably with four rounds to go, and even going into the final race in South Africa. But three retirements in four races saw him overtaken by Piquet and Brabham.
As much as Prost loved the car, later declaring it one of his favourites, he was done with the reliability problems, and promptly left for McLaren. Renault wouldn’t win another race before quitting F1 for the first time at the end of 1985. The RE40 will go down as one of those “what if” cars.
A more modern F1 fan? Have a look at: The history of F1: the 2000s
Somehow in the 1980s McLaren’s powers were such that it managed to build two of the greatest F1 cars of all time. Just like the MP4/4 we have gone into detail about the MP4/2 in our video on the greatest Formula 1 cars ever. But while the MP4/4 was a totally dominant machine that crushed it’s opposition in the kind of way Toto Wolff wishes he could (no matter what he says on Drive to Survive, Mercedes have not got to McLaren 1988 levels yet) the MP4/2 had the longevity.
The MP4/2 won races across three seasons, and won four championships. It did all that while not bowing to the pressure to use qualifying engines that lasted a couple of laps, like other teams did in the power-hungry Turbo era. Instead, with the engine under the bonnet financed in house, McLaren decided to let its car do the talking come race day. And most of the time they did, several times lapping the entire field before the chequered flag, sometimes multiple times.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
Which is your favourite 1980s F1 car?
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